Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reflections on the Decline and Fall

While I was aware of this fairly common practice in Austria, I was only later able to put names and faces to those who had actually done so. Various musical composers, painters, poets, philosophers, inventors, writers, journalists, found the study of law an integral part of their intellectual development. These major contributors to the life of Western Civilization included such Austrian students of the law as two of the fathers of sociology, Max Weber and Ludwig Gumplowicz; major figures of the “Austrian School” of economics, Carl Menger, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, as well as the economists Friedrich von Wieser and Leopold Kohr (who authored the phrase “small is beautiful”); philosophers Anton Menger, Otto Bauer, Max Adler, Fritz Mauthner, Adolf Stohr, Gottfried Leibniz, and Gustav Bergmann; lawyers and philosophers Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and Hans Kelsen; the inventor Wolfgang von Klempelen; journalist Karl Kraus; artist and psychologist Anton Ehrenzweig; art historian Alois Riegl; the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal; music composer Emil von Reznicek; and students of music, Guido Adler and Eduard Hanslick. The world-renowned symphonic conductor, Fritz Reiner, provided another example. Throughout my years of law school teaching, I have often wondered why men and women with backgrounds in music tended to do so well. Perhaps in the interconnectedness of Austrian culture can be found insights lost in modern student concerns over grade-point averages and bar exams! Nor can I overlook the major contributions made to civilization by such erstwhile students of the law as the literary giants Kakfa and Goethe.
The study of law is but one example of the creative nature of the metamorphic powers of an integrative culture. Those who pursued other inter-disciplinary studies illustrate a similar influence. Such dynamics—rather than the modern reductionist emphasis on specialization—helps us understand why Austria became a focal point for the creativity that found expression in such music composers as Haydn, Schubert, Mozart, the two Johann Strausses, Schonberg, Beethoven, and Mahler; such scientific minds as Gregor Mendel, Freud, Alfred Adler, Konrad Lorenz, Ernst Brucke, Theodor Meynert, Erwin Schrodinger, Ludwig Boltzmann, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Mach, Fritjof Capra, and Paul Feyerabend; the novelist and first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Bertha von Suttner; the writer and inventor Josef Popper-Lynkeus; as well as such prolific thinkers as Edmund Husserl, Viktor Frankl, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler, Franz Brentano, Bernard Bolzano, Eric Voegelin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; and actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr. While not all of these persons were students of multiple subject areas, the more holistic, integrated Austrian culture in which they and other individuals worked doubtless produced an environment that added to their creativity.
The processes that allow the genius and creative energies of individuals to merge into a prolific civilization, include such powerful domains as frontiers. The course of American history has led many of us to think of a frontier in geographic terms, as an unknown and uncertain territory existing beyond the known and established. Frederick Jackson Turner has written of the pivotal role played by a politically unstructured environment in which people were free to explore and innovate and, as a consequence, generate a free and productive society.7 States whose political systems were too restrictive and structured found themselves in competition with an ever-expanding “west,” to which creative persons were attracted. The presence of reasonably accessible and less-regulated environments also served to temper state efforts for control.
Of greater significance than geographically defined frontiers are the psychological and intellectual dimensions—the “state of mind”—of people who either accept or disregard the restraints placed upon their behavior by external authorities. As Alfred North Whitehead expressed it, “the vivid people keep moving on, geographically and otherwise, for men can be provincial in time, as well as in place.”8 There is a vibrancy in the life process that manifests itself along the boundary lines that separate the known from the unknown; the stable from the changeable; the familiar from the novel. In the interplay between the conscious and unconscious minds—often experienced when the brain is in an alpha state—we can experience this dynamic of creativity.
One can see this same creativity where the boundaries of various intellectual disciplines meet. The study of “history,” “economics,” “law,” “physics,” etc., takes place within realms whose inviolabilities are often fiercely guarded by certified professors within each field. Not unlike the nature of political “peace” talks, so-called “inter-disciplinary” conferences frequently encounter resistance from participants dedicated to the defense of their respective “turfs.” The historian who invades the territory of the physicists, or the economist who incorporates legal doctrine into his presentation—and, I must add, vice-versa—risks attack from the home-guard.
But it is precisely where such boundary lines meet that much creativity occurs. Looking across the boundary line into the neighbor s space can reveal a frontier to be explored. One might discover qualities on the other side that can be synthesized with their own discipline to create an expanded understanding of the world. Cross-disciplinary similarities might also be found, helping to confirm one’s prior thinking. As one noted historian has observed, nineteenth century medical practice in Austria was premised on allowing natural processes of healing to take precedence over interventionist procedures. This attitude also prevailed among many Austrians regarding politics, as well as in the Austrian economics—pioneered by Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises—that eschewed government interference with the marketplace.9 Did earlier principles from the realm of medicine influence economic thought, or might this common principle have a deeper basis of understanding that surfaced within each of these fields?
All creative actions confront the energies that seek to stabilize existing systems, practices, and thought. Elsewhere, I use the metaphor of the “cutting-and-filling” functions of rivers to illustrate the constant interplay between forces of stability and change that pervade nature.10 On the cutting side—where its energy is greater—the river eats into the surrounding bank, bringing earth, plants, and other debris into the stream. On the weaker filling side, dirt and silt collect, and it is here where new plant life forms. In this interaction is found the synthesis between the forces of destruction and consolidation that is the essence of creativity.
We are beginning to develop a better understanding of how the turbulence of chaotic systems produces order in the world. From this enhanced awareness comes a growing appreciation for the individualized and spontaneous nature of the creative process. Privately owned property; personal liberty; respect for contracts—which, in turn, is dependent upon longer-term time preferences; and the decentralization of decision-making, provide the necessary social environment for such inventiveness. The creative energies that gave birth to Western Civilization arose from within individuals who were able to transcend the lines that constrain our understanding and practices to within established boundaries. As has always been the case, within free and independent minds are to be found the frontiers for the creation of new ideas and forms to help us live humanely.
We have seen how civilizations are created by individuals. In the following pages, we shall discover how they are destroyed by collectives11 which are good for little more than the destruction of what others have created. We see this in the sharp contrasts between market economies and state socialism; between the Industrial Revolution and the Soviet Union. In many ways does history remind us of the continuing struggles between the creative energies unleashed by liberty, and the repressive forces of politics. The members of collectives are too dominated by “dark side” forces of mob psychology to ever undertake the prolonged and highly-focused inquiries necessary to the creation of anything fundamentally original. Collectives provide mirror images of minds in the default mode, capable of only reflecting the shared ignorance and prejudices upon which the institutionalized control of humans depends. Because we are unable to identify the names of distant ancestors who produced so much of what we modernly embrace as our common understanding, we are inclined to imagine a collective genesis for the insights of ancient individuals. We gaze, in awe, upon 32,000-year-old handprints found in ancient caves in Spain and France, forgetting that these represented the efforts of individuals to communicate something of themselves to others. Even folk-music and ballads were the creation of unknown individuals rather than collective groups. In the words of H.L. Mencken, there is the “sheer impossibility to imagine them being composed by a gang of oafs whooping and galloping around a May pole.”
Returning to the Austrian microcosm that reflects the fate of Western Civilization generally, when collectivism—in the form of German National Socialism—infected that country, many of its more creative individuals fled to such less-repressive frontiers as America, Switzerland, and England. Gresham’s law finds expression beyond the more familiar confines of government monetary practices. Arnold Schonberg, Franz Werfel, Sigmund Freud, Erwin Schrodinger, Leopold Kohr, the brothers Ludwig and Richard von Mises, Kurt Godel, Karl Popper, Otto Loewi, Olga Hahn-Neurath and her husband Otto Neurath, Anton Ehrenzweig, Lise Meitner, Rudolf Carnap, novelist Stefan Zweig, Rose Rand, Walter Mischel, Edgar Zilsel, Philip Frank, Nobel laureates (in physics) Viktor Francis Hess, Wolfgang Pauli, and (in chemistry) Walter Kohn; painters Herbert Bayer and Georg Mayer-Marton; noted lawyer Hans Kelsen, Fritz Lang, Josef Frank, Gustav Bergmann, Robert Stolz, and Billy Wilder, were among the better known to depart Austria. They joined with such refugees from other European countries as the writers Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann; painters Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Piet Mondrian; conductor Georg Solti, composer Darius Milhaud, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, film-stars Marlene Dietrich and Conrad Veidt; along with Nobel laureates Max Born and Albert Einstein (physics), Fritz Haber (chemistry), and Bernard Katz and Hans Krebs (medicine). In such highly personal ways have civilizations continued the dance between the life-enhancing creativity of individuals, and the collective forces of death and destruction.
Mindful of the historic interplay of forces at work in the creation and death of civilizations, I am of the opinion that Western Civilization—with particular attention directed to its American franchise—has about run its course. While this book focuses on such a prognosis, I also address the question: what is likely to follow from this imminent “decline and fall?” Might the remnants of our terminal culture—like an estate bequeathed us by a rich benefactor—provide the foundations for a fundamentally transformed culture; one that does not cannibalize itself?
Previous civilizations continue to exert their influences, long after their death-certificates have been signed by historians. Philosophy students still begin their studies by reading the ancient Greeks; Roman law and engineering retain their influences into the twenty-first century; Western Civilization, itself, also finds its foundations greatly influenced by the Saracens, whose contributions to mathematics, science, and the replacement of Roman with Arabic numerals, helped lay the foundations for the Renaissance. The evolution of human language, biology, and culture, has arisen through millennia of interconnected, cross-fertilizing relationships. The influences of our ancient, primitive ancestors—who learned how to organize with fellow tribesmen either to hunt for food, or to destroy their neighbors—continue to direct our thought and behavior. Our lineage is traceable both to Attila the Hun and Homer; to Machiavelli as well as Shakespeare; while the contrasting images of Ozymandias and Botticelli’s “Venus” speak to passionate emotions.
Western culture has produced material and spiritual values that have done so much to humanize and civilize mankind. It has also produced highly-structured institutions and practices that not only impede, but reverse these life-enhancing qualities. Is it possible for us to energize our intelligence in order to rediscover, in the debris of our dying civilization, the requisite components for a fundamentally transformed culture grounded in free, peaceful, and productive systems that sustain rather than diminish life?

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